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In Regard to Broadway ...
Kelli O'Hara; Dean Regan

Songs from the musical theatre repertoire populate new CDs from two strong-voiced performers, each with a second solo release. Material spans the decades and moods, with arrangements for a small band, with repeat trips to the Sondheim well and the South Pacific lament, "This Nearly Was Mine."

KELLI O'HARA
ALWAYS

Ghostlight/Sh-K-Boom Records

Broadway ingénue Kelli O'Hara's voice is radiant and bright, golden and a pleasure to the ears. On Always, it's always front and center, whether the singing is ringing powerfully or the sound is gentle and light. The "light side" might not always be right side for some listeners who prefer more drama if they're informed by (and expecting) something closer to the moods suggested by the theatrical origins of this mostly ripped-from-the-musical-theatre-songbook repertoire. Choices opt for pretty or safe or serene instead of going for guts and grit or gravitas. But this is not a cast album: it's a CD meant for spinning on its own, to just enjoy the sounds and songs standing alone—and Kelli's lovely, unstrained voice is often elegant and shimmers.

Accompaniment by five musicians on most tracks allows for a more intimate experience with focus on the singer and songs' essences. Antoine Silverman is marvelous on solo violin, but seems to be called upon to carry a lot of weight and becomes oddly prominent here and there. A different group accompanies one of the CD's main attractions: a more thoughtful, mature reading of the new "Another Life" from The Bridges of Madison County. Its composer-lyricist, Jason Robert Brown, takes over here as arranger, producer, pianist (and playing the shaker, too). It's a lengthy, dense story song that takes a few hearings to fully absorb.

Also of interest, because she starred in South Pacific's recent celebrated revival, is that iconic show's leading man's number, "This Nearly Was Mine." How did being around the song for so many performers inform her interpretation? It's more wistful than mournful at first, building in intensity as it goes along, becoming more throbbing and theatrical, then pulling back at the very end, as if unwilling to go for the full four-Kleenex climax. Another page from the Rodgers & Hammerstein songbook, The King and I's "Something Wonderful" gets a more conversational, less pleading-than-the-original-context spin. There are also a couple of incorrect words sung here, throwing off the meaning and rhyme scheme at one point. The Sondheim visits are "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday in the Park with George and "What More Do I Need?" from his early work, Saturday Night. It's nice to hear the male character's song in a woman's voice, jettisoning much of the anguish and conflicted feelings and substituting a more reflective and reasoned point of view. Still, the original show's arrangement and accompaniment structure remains a strong echo of the forceful drama. Perhaps one need not be put fully through the wringer to "get" the creative artist's dilemmas in balancing professional and personal lives and his/her delights in creation. More pleasing is the breezy "What More Do I Need?" with plucky abandon, no push for impact, attentiveness to little pauses that highlight the humor in the lyric and some fun instrumental choices to simulate the noises mentioned in the song about the city's headache-inducing sounds.

Musical direction and most arrangements are courtesy of Dan Lipton who co-produced the CD (with Lawrence Manchester) and co-wrote its comic relief song (with David Rossmer)—the goofy change of pace is a lengthy (seven minutes) romp called "They Don't Let You in the Opera (If You're a Country Star)." The title gives you more than a general idea, but the somewhat labored bit also has the central gal going into labor during a show, has a few cuss words, and gives our star a chance to show off her more operatic chops and have a lowbrow humor holiday. She does let down her hair and guard admirably, having herself quite a party. But on "The Party's Over," we're back to reserve, rather than full immersion in a song's potential. The self-pity is pretty, where it might be pretty tragic. Again, wistful must satisfy, and I'm sure there are some who will welcome a gentler approach if they prefer to dip a toe in the pools of sorrow rather than risk the pull of quicksand. Still, a crystalline voice that shimmers provides plenty of glimmers of warm, winsome sunshine and that's not a forecast that requires carping … not "always."

DEAN REGAN
GIVE MY REGARDS TO BROADWAY

Juicy and jubilant, you can feel the joy that Dean Regan has running through and relishing his material. Like a kid in a candy store, he has a sweet tooth for Broadway's bounty of riches. Wrapping himself in the characters' personalities and viewpoints, making a splash by jumping into the zingier songs, going for a high note and unafraid of high drama, he has a field day. Beginning with the sound of an orchestra tuning up and an audience's expectant applause (corny, perhaps, but is there anything like that exciting anticipatory moment in a theatre?), he's off to a fine start with the album's title song. Rather than the easy choices of either a gleeful gallop of unbridled enthusiasm or misty-eyed nostalgia, a tight little vamp and bass line, with a finger-snapping rhythm, sets the pace with tension itching for release, freshening the 107-year-old George M. Cohan. It builds, including snippets from a few related songs and becomes truly celebratory and infectious. The arrangement is a collaboration among Barry Kleinbort, David Gaines, and the CD's musical supervisor and anchoring keyboard player, Nick Fryman. Following this, we race through Broadway gold, slam-bam-wham with a bit of ham, including two frolics by Frank Loesser (a fervent "Luck Be a Lady" and a playful prance through the charmer "Once in Love with Amy"), three pieces by Stephen Sondheim, and Stephen Schwartz's Wicked ending the program with back-to-back fervent, focused performances of "Defying Gravity" and "For Good."

Obvious respect for the original contexts is present, with most numbers recalling the musical blueprints and theatrical origins, while the energy and commitment keeps things from feeling like slavish do-overs from the recycling pile. Some stay firmly in their architecture, including tempi and some familiar accompaniment figures, but "Everybody Says Don't" is a notable and intriguing exception. Rather than the familiar insistent briskness, it cuts those reins and begins more thoughtfully and gently, out of tempo, bringing new spotlight to the lyrics and their advocacy for risk. The speed picks up as things progress, but, to quote the song, "sometimes you gotta start small"—and it ends big and bold. It doesn't ever become too leisurely, as the track comes in at just under three minutes. Likewise, the other two Sondheim selections, "Not a Day Goes By" and "Being Alive," while more traditional, are also short and to the point (2:22 and 2:46, respectively) and hit their emotional marks without the melodrama or hand-wringing singing that some opt for with these numbers. On the more generous side, in drama and time—over eight minutes long—is a satisfying centerpiece suite of in-character songs from Man of La Mancha. Displaying the leading character's regrets and determined optimism, Dean shines in this tour de force like the would-be still-gleaming armor of his knightly hero. "To Each His Dulcinea," dripping with noble entitlement is at least as powerful as the expected climax of "The Impossible Dream" ("The Quest").

The voice is clear, the diction generally good, although there's a casualness, too, there (for example, in "Not a Day Goes By"'s line, "I need you to stay" note the vowel sounds pronounced as "I need ya t' stay".) However, when a character is more formal, he adopts that like an actor changing costume easily and willingly. The accompaniment also changes from track to track, with eight musicians playing a variety of instruments. The sound and production are generally good, occasionally busy or pumping more drama than needed for the ready Regan who has much of the drama goods to deliver just in his attitudes and voice.

Dean seems to have as much fun zipping through Finian's Rainbow's lovestruck "Old Devil Moon" as he does galloping through the tongue-twisting patter song "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General," complete with the last chorus at increased speed. It comes from Gilbert & Sullivan's classic The Pirates of Penzance, the show whose New York City revival 30 years ago gave our vocalist his moment in the Broadway sun as a cast member; he also was part of the tour. Other theater roles followed, taking him around the country and jobs singing on cruise ships in concert took him around the world. The Chicago-born actor is now based in Los Angeles, but returned to New York in March to present a preview of this material in a polished nightclub act I caught at the Metropolitan Room. Some songs, on disc and in person, feel stubbornly entrenched in their theatrical roots, and more personalization and scaling down might be in order to make his work more "cabaret"-communicative than concertizing. Revealing himself even more through the songs, showing who he is, rather than "trying on" iconic theater characters, would be the next step. Likewise, less reliance on numbers so often tackled by "Best of Broadway"-type shows would be welcome.


- Rob Lester


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